US Withdrawal and Afghanistan’s Future
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

President Trump in his State of the Union address on February 6th said “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” He added that America will accelerate negotiations for a political settlement.1 The formal announcement will encourage Taliban to demand unilateral concessions from US, sensing Americans are in a hurry to depart. This perception has been reinforced by competing negotiating processes launched by US and Russia in Doha and Moscow.

President Trump’s announcement took place against the backdrop of second round of discussions on Afghanistan in Moscow. While the earlier round tried to promote a regional consensus of Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran in support of Taliban, this session focused on Intra-Afghan dialogue. Taliban had a unified position; the other side included disparate voices ranging from former President Karzai, Ata Mohammad Noor to Qanooni. These dignitaries have been part of Afghan power structure created by Bonn Conference more than a decade ago. Their presence in the meeting boycotted by Afghan Government showed lack of cohesion between the Government and the democratic opposition. This also reflects failure of Ghani government to forge national consensus at a time of growing national danger.

Taliban leader Stanakzai rejected the Afghan Constitution and called for dissolution of Afghan Army after US withdrawal.2 These are far reaching demands, which go beyond change of regime to fundamental change of the status quo. The idea is to disarm the Government and pre-empt any challenge to Taliban domination once the Americans leave. This hardly shows good faith to accept a broad-based government in future. Stanakzai’s comment on dissolution of Afghan Army drew angry rejoinder from President Ghani3. Stankazai later claimed that he was misquoted by the media. He said that the Army was originally created to fight Taliban, which would be no longer needed once the Americans withdraw.4 The odd explanation begs the question as to would the Taliban cease fighting after the American forces leave, and accept peaceful co-existence with their political rivals?

Ata Mohammad Noor, the erstwhile Governor of Balkh Province who was dismissed by President Ghani, emphasized the need to co-opt Taliban in an interim government5. He cited the precedent of interim government formed at the Bonn Conference in 2001. This ignores a fundamental difference in the context since the interim government of 2002 was formed after the war was won. Those who composed it were part of post war consensus. In the present situation, Taliban have not accepted the cease-fire, nor the constitution on which the government is based. Taliban attacked Baghlan and Kunduz provinces while discussions were going on in Moscow. 6 Like their mentor, Pakistan, they believe that negotiations and terror are two sides of the same coin. To include them in the interim government would not only undermine Ghani, but unravel the whole edifice built by international community over 17 years.

Zalmay Khaleelzad in his interview to New York Times said that the issue of interim government has not been discussed7. But he also did not foreclose the option. The National Unity Government (NUG) under President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah have rejected the prospect of an interim government. But they would come under increasing pressure, if the democratic opposition joins Taliban in calling for a transitional arrangement. Zalmay Khaleelzad in media statements since has mentioned that he would like an agreement with Taliban to be reached before the elections8. This could mean that Taliban will have the option to take part in election. There could be an alternative explanation, which is less palatable: The future of the country will be decided through bilateral negotiations between US and Taliban before people of Afghanistan have spoken.

Apart from interim government, Ata Mohammad Noor also stressed the need for a cease-fire, reaching an agreement through intra-Afghan dialogue and working out a framework for the withdrawal of NATO forces. This is how it should be. If Intra-Afghan dialogue is held when the American forces are still around, the negotiations would be relatively free of intimidation. However, the order of priorities followed in Doha talks between the Americans and Taliban is the opposite. Those talks have focused on American withdrawal, and Taliban promise not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a platform for international terrorist organizations. It has so far not covered intra-Afghan dialogue on future of Afghanistan and cease-fire, which have been left for subsequent discussions.

Qanooni, erstwhile Northern Alliance leader emphasized the need to preserve Afghan constitution. Ata Mohammad Noor also called for preserving the gains of recent years. He described women’s rights and the armed forces as Afghanistan’s national heritage. These are unexceptionable. But these goals will become more difficult to achieve once Taliban have been allowed unconditional entry to the halls of power.

Is the battle lost already to justify unconditional talks with Pakistan? According to a report by US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (CIGAR), Taliban control only minor part of territory (12 % of Afghan districts). The government still controls the major part (55 % of afghan districts), while the rest are contested9. Taliban have not managed to hold any major town. Post 2011, successive elections have spawned a constituency for democratic process. Despite a sustained campaign of terror attacks by Taliban, approximately 4.2 million voters, out of a total of 8.8 million, cast their vote according to the Independent Election Commission (IEC). This amounted to 47.72 % turn-out10. To abandon them to Taliban’s concept of ‘Islamic Emirate’ would amount to abandoning democratic principles, which India espouses.

Taliban are using Doha and Moscow tracks alternately to maximize their gains. Direct negotiations with Americans are being used to obtain US withdrawal. Intra-Afghan dialogue in Moscow is being used to promote the idea of Taliban’s participation in an interim government before elections, or cease-fire.

President Trump’s decision to exit Syria invited domestic opposition. Afghanistan war was not popular with President Obama either, who had set a dead-line in 2011 to exit Afghanistan.

Pakistan has the satisfaction of seeing its protégé take center stage, while its role as the puppet master remains in shadow. Though US Generals have testified to the Congress about Pakistan’s role in supporting insurgency in Afghanistan, this was not taken up in Doha talks, which have been ‘facilitated’ by Pakistan.

What are India’s options? Do we join the negotiations to avoid being left out? Doha talks are bilateral negotiations between US and Taliban. Regional countries were invited to Moscow talks. Will joining the Moscow talks or regional initiative in some other format help us influence the outcome? Or our role will be to simply endorse the fait accompli? The group of countries represented in Moscow have little say in shaping American decision. American withdrawal is decided by exigencies of America’s domestic processes. It may proceed with or without agreement with Taliban. Once the American forces have left, even US cannot influence conduct of Taliban. India joining the Moscow process would not change the outcome. America suspects that Moscow initiative is aimed at queering the pitch against it. It does not help India to be part of an exercise to embarrass America.

Taliban’s bilateral differences with Pakistan on Durand line in the past do not extend to J&K. An extremist Sunni organization is unlikely to endorse democratic pluralism India espouses in Kashmir.

India’s equity in Afghanistan is USD 3 billion of development assistance. After US withdrawal, this will not be sufficient to maintain leverage. India must have connectivity with Afghanistan. This cannot be limited to air corridor, which can be disrupted at will by Pakistan. Already, there are warning shots. We need land access. This is only possible through Chabahar. Port development has to be hastened up. We also need to start a regular shipping line servicing this port.

Use of Chabahar for access to Afghanistan will also require understanding with Iran. We have excellent relations with that country. We need to maintain dialogue on Afghanistan, where lately Iranian position has been leaning towards accommodation with Taliban. However, nation’s policies change with national interests.

We need to wait and watch. Last time Pakistan succeeded in foisting Taliban in Kabul. But they could neither sustain their creation, nor bring it international recognition. This time by pushing Taliban towards engagement with the international community, they want to achieve their strategic goal with international approval. We need not get drawn in this exercise of legitimizing Taliban, who have so far only indulged in ruthless acts of terrorism. We must stand with the people of Afghanistan, who have lived with imperfect peace for more than a decade. We should keep open channels of bilateral consultation with US, Russia and Iran.


(D.P. Srivastava is a former Ambassador to Iran, and currently a Senior Fellow in the VIF.)

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